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Sony CLIE SJ20

Smaller, brighter, better-built PDA at a great price

by Shawn Barnett

August 16, 2002

The face of mobile computing is shrinking. Though it's not the first of the Palm OS PDAs to get smaller than the venerable Palm V, the Sony CLIE SJ20 marks the beginning of a trend. Photographs of the SJ20 actually look a little odd because we're so used to seeing a taller profile. The SJ20 looks somewhat squat, even pudgy without a frame of reference.

In this case, I've placed it next to its predecessor, the Sony T415 (see image below). The SJ20 has a lot in common with the T415. The T415 broke new ground in design, with a slim, one-piece housing that evoked a Star Trek PADD. It was slim because it used a unique screen design, a high-resolution (320 x 320) monochrome LCD with a surreal green glowing backlight. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to use in anything but direct sunlight because of the low contrast and dim backlight.

The SJ20 uses a different approach. While it's a good deal thicker than the T415, it's at least a half inch shorter. And this time they took advantage of that extra thickness and gave the screen not only a decent backlight, but a fabulously bright, almost paper white backlight. No, they didn't light up the pixels like Palm and Handspring have done in the past, they lit the background, just as they did with the S300 series. The effect is reminiscent of a black and white television screen, or even a newspaper. The pixels aren't perfectly black, more of a very dark grey, but it's excellent. Transition to daylight is almost seamless; even the tone of the background remains the same, indoors or out.

One feature that doesn't appear improved from the T415 is the relatively slow refresh. It's unclear why, because while icons and photos in Picture Gear Pocket draw to the screen slowly, the Photostand program drops the same pictures in all at once. Because of the high resolution and white background, by the way, the SJ20 is an impressive platform for displaying black and white photos.

Unlike traditional monochrome LED screens, the screen of the SJ20, just like the T415, is dark when the unit is off. A handsome dark mask beneath the digitizer surrounds the screen and continues down to the Graffiti area. The plastic bezel around the face wastes no space, neither top, bottom, nor sides. I'm still waiting for a near edge-to-edge screen, but at least the extraneous top and bottom are eliminated for an overall small package.

Across the bottom face are the usual four buttons, nicely rocker-shaped. The rocker toggle itself is more traditional than on T-series CLIEs, and it works better. Right below the rocker is the charge indicator LED. On the left is the Jog Dial and "back" button. The bottom has a standard connector, used on the T and NR series CLIEs, a welcome trend that I hope continues.

The top has a lanyard loop, the IrDA window, Memory Stick slot with door, and the power button. I'm not excited about the power button's position on top of the unit, but it is well protected from accidental activation by the included flip cover.

The flip cover shows that Sony has learned some lessons from past models. The flexible hinge is reinforced with plastic inserts that help maintain the cover's alignment with the front face. It also helps the cover reach out over the somewhat thick top of the unit and yet still lay flush.

Many will be happy that the SJ20 uses the same stylus as the T-series CLIEs, and others will be disappointed that it's still the same slender design. Many readers have returned their CLIEs for no other reason than this. I'm pleased to see that it at least snicks in place more positively than the stylus of the NR70V.

16MB of RAM, a 33MHz Dragonball VZ processor, and USB connectivity round out the package. No cradle is included, instead a HotSync cable and charging cable are supplied, with a small plastic snap and connector to hold them together and combine them into a single HotSync and charging solution. The SJ20 is also compatible with the T-series cradles.

Applications are standard Sony fare, with the enhanced Address Book, gMovie, PictureGear Pocket, CLIE Paint, plus demo versions of PocketVineyard and Pocket Gourmet.

The SJ20 is a tight, low-profile PDA with utilitarian style. It's a little on the thick side, especially when compared to the Handspring Treo 90, which isn't really much thinner, it's just more tapered and bullet-shaped around the edges. The SJ20 is also somewhat weighty at 5.3 ounces. I appreciate its solid feel, excellent screen, and diminutive profile nonetheless. Students and first time purchasers will be pleased with its US$199 price tag. It will be available in stores on August 19, 2002.

-Shawn Barnett

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